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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press photos Guard Dakota Mathias and center Isaac Haas, both Purdue seniors, have helped to lead a resurgence for the Boilermakers. A year before they arrived in West Lafayette, Purdue finished last in the Big Ten.

  • Seniors P.J. Thompson and Vincent Edwards have also helped Purdue's resurgence. They were part of a team that won the Big Ten regular-season title in 2016-17 and a team that got as high as No. 3 in the AP poll this season.

Monday, March 12, 2018 1:00 am

Seniors key Purdue success

Together, 4-man class has won 100 games

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

When he was a senior in high school, Purdue guard P.J. Thompson went to West Lafayette for Purdue's Senior Night game against Northwestern. The Boilermakers lost that game, their sixth straight loss, dropping their record to 15-16 while close to 1,000 seats were empty at Mackey Arena.

Five years later, on Feb. 25, Thompson and his three senior teammates spoke to a capacity crowd at Mackey after their final home game as Boilermakers. Nearly all the fans who had seen the game, a blowout victory over Minnesota, stayed to hear one of the most successful senior classes in Purdue history give its Senior Night speeches.

“The gym was not like this when I was a senior in high school,” Thompson said to the crowd. “I can't appreciate you guys enough for staying and listening to us, so just give a round of applause to all the fans please.”

The crowd roared as Thompson instructed, one of the countless illustrations from that night of the gratitude the Purdue faithful have for this quartet of graduating seniors. Thompson, Vincent Edwards, Isaac Haas and Dakota Mathias have not only won more than nearly any other class in school history, but they have helped changed the culture of a program that was at a low point when they entered it.

The year before this class arrived at Purdue, the Boilermakers missed the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season.

In the class's final campaign in West Lafayette, Purdue put together one of its best regular seasons in school history, reaching as high as No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and winning a school-record 19 straight games.

“You want to get guys in your program that are about winning and that are competitive, that came here to get an education and also play basketball the right way,” coach Matt Painter said before the Senior Night game. “Do you lay it on the line? Do you compete? Do you win? These (seniors) have been competitive; they've won a lot of games, but they've done it the right way.”

The group has one Big Ten title on its résumé after finishing 16-2 in the league play as juniors, and finished second in both the Big Ten regular season and tournament this season. Still, the seniors left a mark on the Purdue record books. The win against Minnesota was the 100th in their four years, just the fourth class to reach that mark. Fittingly, the win on Senior Night was also the class' 62nd at Mackey Arena, setting a program record. In the Big Ten Tournament final against Michigan, the four combined for 41 points, putting it over 5,000 in four years.

Of course, the four seniors did not return this season to win regular-season games or reach milestones. Having already cemented an enduring legacy, the group can add an appropriate coda to its run by leading Purdue to its first Final Four since 1980.

“I think a lot of our guys understand that this is the last time we're all going to ride together on probably one of the best teams we're ever going to play on,” Haas said after the Senior Night win. “I think we're on the right track and I can't wait to see where we go.”

Haas' story especially highlights the connection that has grown between this group and Boilermakers fans.

The center's sister, Erin, has epilepsy and a GoFundMe account to provide her with a seizure dog received donations in excess of $22,000 from more than 450 people.

On Senior Night, Erin and the dog were by Haas' side as he thanked the fans for their support.

“You have no idea how much that means to our family, no idea,” said Haas, who struggled to get the words out through tears. As he took a second to compose himself, Edwards walked over and patted his teammate's back.

The moment shows not only the bond between the fans and the seniors, but also the rapport that has developed among the players. The group has started 43 games together, winning 35, and they clearly enjoy playing with one another. 

“They've been like my brothers for a really long time,” Edwards said during his speech. “You can tell we like each other on the court and off the court. That's something you can't make up. That's true chemistry.”

The chemistry between the seniors has seeped into the rest of the team, giving the underclassmen a model to emulate. This group has ensured that the cultural changes it has produced will endure after it's gone.

“I think we've set a good example for the younger guys to follow,” Thompson said in the press conference on Senior Night. “We might not be the most vocal guys, but if you follow us, follow our lead, you guys are going to have success.”

With this group gone, sophomore Carsen Edwards will have to assume a larger leadership role. The guard isn't a vocal player, but he said he knows that leading by example can be effective because he has seen it work with these seniors.

“(If I) just try to do the things that I tell other people they should do or show other people they should do, I believe it'll be easier for them to follow,” Edwards said.

“That's what I learned from (the seniors), just the patience going through ups and downs, trying to stay level-headed.”

Before the younger Edwards assumes that leadership mantle, however, the current group has one more tournament run in front of it. The Boilermakers fell short in the Big Ten tournament, losing to Michigan on March 4, but their larger goals are still within reach. 

Regardless of how deep that NCAA run is, however, this group of seniors will be remembered for a long time in West Lafayette. One moment after the Senior Night victory exemplifies its legacy.

Nearly 90 minutes after the game ended, Haas and Thompson remained, signing autographs in a nearly empty Mackey Arena.

dsinn@jg.net